Roni Beth Tower
Source: Roni Beth Tower

The data is in, the science is solid: interpersonal relationships that provide “social support” improve quality of life, contributing to our happiness, pleasure, sense of meaning, and health. When an illness or accident occurs, social support speeds recovery. Less loneliness is even linked to longevity. Then again, personal relationships can also make demands on us, requiring our time, attention, emotional or financial resources. Resulting ambivalence can accelerate aging and compromise health. 

This series of articles will review sources of social support, the features and benefits of close relationships, romantic relationships, midlife changes in romantic relationships, and long-distance romantic relationships. Later posts, in response to news releases, book reviews, or reader interest, will explore other aspects of close relationships.

In today’s world, three major sources of “social support” can meet our needs for companionship, affection, comfort, being cared for; our craving to access information or inspiration; our search for partnership; and our yearning to be able to make a difference ourselves.

  • Virtual Communities. Birthed in the age of the internet and managed by an increasing diversity of people with different needs and gifts to offer, virtual communities that form around a particular need or topic are often open to new members, easily identified, and easy to join. They are also easy to leave. They can serve as replacement Mommy Groups for the working mother who cannot stay for coffee while her child is in a preschool or after-school program, as consultants on the management of anything from treatment of a bee sting to organizing a multi-generational trip to Cape Cod; as support for the young adult trying to enter the world of work. Offering rich resources from diverse perspectives, virtual communities accessed through the internet and, specifically, social media, can impact well-being without demanding a great deal from their members.  

Virtual communities can also foster feelings of inadequacy, as people compare themselves to their peers and find themselves lacking. They can lead to envy or jealousy when members imagine possibilities modeled by other people’s lives that simply do not fit who they are or are destined to become. These moments require one to step back to look for alternate solutions that could meet an underlying need. For example, my envy of Pinterest photos of travels to Italy does not necessarily tell me I need—or even want—to go to Italy.  It tells me I want adventure or discovery or beauty or warmth or just a vacation from work or routine in my life. The challenge lies in identifying my real need and a more appropriate way for me to fill it.  Perhaps an afternoon at an outdoor sculpture garden would give me what my heart longs for; perhaps a more significant rearrangement of my priorities to allow room for beauty is called for; perhaps I need to take a Mental Health Day.  Do I need more stimulation or less?

  • Actual Communities. The second source defines people who share a common interest, commitment or activity choice, who routinely gather together in person. Think book clubs, religious or volunteer groups, hikers and bikers and musicians. Years ago Albert Mehrabian documented that only about 7 percent of communication about feelings and attitudes is embedded in words. Tone of voice adds another 38 percent or so, leaving more than half of the information—that conveyed through body language and qualities of the energy being transmitted—out of the conversation.  

An actual community adds body language and energy back into the mix, vastly increasing the power of people to reach and communicate accurately with one another. They can lead to limited but valuable and useful contact, like furnishing rides home following events, providing referrals to a reliable bike shop or bakery, delivering meals when a broken leg prevents you from driving, or bearing witness when one of your loved ones dies.  

In addition, an actual community brings two more dimensions to the complexity of social support: people one prefers to be with more, or sometimes less, and relationships that center on a specific pursuit or endeavor. Interpersonal dynamics can easily move beyond the group’s specific focus. For instance, in working with other volunteers on an American Red Cross simulation, I can bond with people from many backgrounds who are blessed with a huge range of skills and whom I might not meet in my daily life. We can share respect and admiration for one another; we can learn from and teach each other.  

The power of a mission greater than that sustainable by an individual can give our lives meaning, offering individuals expanded opportunities to express caring, competence and creativity. Over time some of us can come to know each other more personally. Our shared commitment grows as the dissimilarity in our origins slips away and we appreciate differences in perspectives and how they reverberate beyond the focus that originally brought us together.  

At the same time, groups can exert negative influences on individuals as well. Community groups can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation if their spirit is competitive and people vie for individual influence and attention rather than devoting themselves to a common cause. They can be toxic as well as supportive and inevitably affect one’s sense of identity, so membership and participation need to be chosen wisely. 

  • Close personal relationships. The third source of social support, close relationships, sometimes grow out of membership in a group. They can be the most powerful of all. They can uniquely address some of our deepest and most personal needs, those that revolve around being recognized, appreciated, and understood as a unique and complex individual.           

Our earliest sources of such intimacy are often based on family ties. The foundation can expand quickly to include those who shared reliable, regular contact over a period of time such as going to school, playing together on a team, meeting regularly at the fitness center, riding the same commuter train; working together on a task, project or mission in ways that take the relationship beyond the focus of the activity into more personal terrain.  These bonds can also come from the mysterious, seemingly chance encounters that sometimes draw people into one another’s lives. The information added through actual contact renders these relationships notably safer than those formed over the internet with so much information missing and thus more room for fantasy, projection, distortion and misunderstanding.      

Close relationships can alter perspective, behavior and mood, the latter with all its chemical underpinnings. Through acts that help someone feel included or excluded, powerful or impotent, recognized or invisible, close friends and family can provoke feelings of fear, frustration, anger or even potential loss as well as benefits gained from the joys of feeling safe and connected. Environmental nudges and emotional contagion are real, and so is love, the constellation of feelings that draws a relationship beyond transactions and into the selfless realms of altruism, friendship, and sometimes passion. In the next five articles, I explore close relationships as they bring unique challenges and opportunities and offer strategies for to keep them strong and flexible. 

Copyright 2016 - Roni Beth Tower

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Sources and Characteristics of Close Relationships is a reply by Roni Beth Tower Ph.D., ABPP

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